PEN America cancels World Voices Festival amid criticism of its response to Israel-Hamas war

NEW YORK (AP) — PEN America has canceled its annual World Voices Festival, as the literary and free expression organization continues to face widespread unhappiness with its response to the Israel-Hamas war. Earlier this week, PEN called off its awards ceremony after nearly half of the finalists withdrew from contention.

The festival, which brings in writers from around the world, was to have taken place next month in New York and Los Angeles. PEN CEO Suzanne Nossel expressed regret over the cancellation, saying it contrasted with why Salman Rushdie among others established the festival 20 years ago.

Naomi Klein, Michelle Alexander, Hisham Matar and dozens of other writers endorsed an open letter in March saying they would not participate in the festival.

“PEN America exists to unite writers in defense of free expression. The premise of World Voices is to engage across wide chasms of worldview and belief, including fostering direct conversation between and among those who disagree profoundly,” Nossel said in a statement Friday.

“A central feature of the planned festival was to have featured multiple Palestinian writers, enabling them to speak not just about the war but about their own books and works. We regret that this is not possible. We are grateful and express our deep sadness to the dozens of writers who voiced their commitment to remain in events, traveling from around the country and the globe.”

While Nossel acknowledged criticism of PEN's leadership, with many writers alleging that the organization has failed to fully condemn Israel's invasion or to fully support Palestinian writers and journalists, she also alleged that said some of her opponents were stifling discussion and pressuring others to boycott PEN events.

“Many writers explained their withdrawal from the event as an expression of protest directed toward PEN America’s response to the war in Gaza,” she said in her statement. “However, we have also heard from dozens of writers who have had to endure harsh attacks on social media and heavy demands to distance themselves from PEN America. Many expressed genuine fear to us.”

April and May have traditionally been the most high-profile months for PEN, when it hosts its award event, World Voices and a gala fundraiser at the American Museum of Natural History. A PEN spokesperson said Friday that the gala is still planned for May 16, with honorees including Paul Simon.